The bones of Black children who died in 1985 after their home was bombed by Philadelphia police in a confrontation with the Black liberation group which was raising them are being used as a “case study” in an online forensic anthropology course presented by an Ivy League professor.
It has emerged that the physical remains of one, or possibly two, of the children who were killed in the aerial bombing of the Move organization in May 1985 have been guarded over the past 36 years in the anthropological collections of the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.
The institutions have held on to the heavily burned fragments, and since 2019 have been deploying them for teaching purposes without the permission of the deceased’s living parents.
To the astonishment and dismay of present-day Move members, some of the bones are being deployed as artifacts in an online course presented in the name of Princeton and hosted by the online study platform Coursera. Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology focuses on “lost personhood” – cases where an individual cannot be identified due to the decomposed condition of their remains.
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It uses as its main “case study” the events of May 1985, producing as prime evidence a set of bones belonging to a girl in her teens retrieved from the ashes of the Move house at 6221 Osage Avenue in Philadelphia.
The professor is holding the bones of a 14-year-old girl whose mother is still alive and grieving.
The revelation comes just days before Philadelphia stages its first official day of remembrance over the 1985 bombing, following a formal apology issued by the city council last year.
The disclosure, first reported by the local news outlet Billy Penn, also lands in the middle of a fevered debate over academia’s handling of African American remains that has been rocket-charged by the nationwide racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year by a police officer.
On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb from a helicopter on to the roof of a communal house occupied by members of Move, an organization that bore comparison to the Black Panthers combined with back-to-nature environmental activism.
In the ensuing inferno, the Move house as well as the entire surrounding neighborhood was razed to the ground.
Eleven people linked to the group were killed. Among them were five children, aged seven to 14.
Last year the city apologized formally for the “immeasurable and enduring harm” caused in the bombing, paving the way to this year’s inaugural commemoration.
The forensic anthropology course in which the bones of a Move child are being used has almost 5,000 enrolled students. It was filmed in February 2019 and is taught by Janet Monge, an adjunct professor in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting professor in the same subject at Princeton.
The Move “case study” is broken up into five online videos, in which Monge relates the history of the 1985 catastrophe. In one video she picks up the bones and holds them up to the camera.
Monge describes the remains in vivid terms. They consist of two bones – a pelvis and femur – that belonged to a small girl probably in her teens that were discovered held together “because they were in a pair of jeans”.
The pelvis was cracked “where a beam of the house had actually fallen on this individual”. The fragment showed signs of burnt tendons around the hip joint.
“The bones are juicy, by which I mean you can tell they are the bones of a recently deceased individual,” Monge continues. “If you smell it, it doesn’t actually smell bad – it smells kind of greasy, like an older-style grease.”
The UPenn and Princeton academic does not inform her students that she is displaying the remains without permission of the girl’s family. She is, however, open about the tragic nature of the confrontation that led to the child’s death in Osage Avenue.
“It was one of the great tragedies, to witness the remains as they were found and moved from this location … I still feel unsettled by many aspects of it,” she says. She also shares with the class that Move continues to exist to this day: “The organization is still active in Philadelphia.”
The display of the human remains of a Black girl who would be in her forties today had she survived the police bombing that took her life is certain to intensify the debate over the way the remains of Black people are handled by academia. The subject has been a talking point for decades, but has intensified in recent months following the mass protests over Floyd’s death.